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Secular education chalks up success with Pakistan’s poor

Financial Times – Farhan Bokhari (30 December 2003)
Boys and girls sit side by side in a system that is seen as an antidote to the more traditional, sectarian schooling.

Secular education chalks up success with Pakistan’s poor

In one of the poorest areas of Pakistan’s biggest city, it is no surprise to see walls plastered with graffiti calling for volunteers to join a Taliban-style Islamic organisation.

More startling is the sight of Karachi’s children lining up to go to school underneath the freshly daubed slogans.

Goth Dhani Bukhsh, a suburb near the city’s airport, would once have been an ideal recruitment ground for militant groups, which rely on poor, under-privileged boys with few prospects.

But today the enthusiasm of students in Goth Dhani Bukhsh is palpable.

Unlike the poorly resourced government establishments, their school, run by The Citizen’s Foundation, offers uniforms, libraries, computer and science laboratories and subsidised tuition fees. Moreover, boys and girls are educated together, which is highly unusual in Pakistan.

“As Muslims, we have the responsibility to teach good moral values and equip people with ways to earn a living,” says Ahsan Saleem, a Pakistani industrialist with interests in banking and textiles, who chairs the TCF.

“Our programme is secular in that it is mainstream, but we don’t claim to be secular. Without confronting anyone else we want to give good education.”

The foundation, which was established by six businessmen in the mid-1990s with the objective of taking education to Pakistan’s poorest, has so far built 140 schools and has ambitious plans to increase that to 1,000.

To raise funds and cover running costs, the TCF has expanded its chapters offshore, through a network of Pakistani expatriates from the oil-rich Persian Gulf region, parts of Europe including the UK, the US and Canada.

Students such as Mohmmad Tariq, a 10-year-old and the eldest of nine siblings, know the value of the TCF school from personal experience. He works for three hours at a local shop in the evening to subsidise his family’s income. “My mother stays at home to look after my eight brothers and sisters and my father is a porter at the airport,” he says.

“The only way that I could go to school came through TCF.”

Maimoona Qayyum, the school’s head girl, appreciates the difference between a government school and her own. “My father is a school teacher at a government school. But he sent me here because he knew that I would get a good education. I want to be a doctor when I grow up.”

Until the TCF was set up, an Islamic madrassah, or religious school, would have been more typical in Pakistan’s most impoverished areas. It would offer religious education only for boys. Girls would have either stayed at home or received no more than primary education.

The success of the TCF is viewed by many Pakistanis as an antidote to the spread of such a sectarian education. In the past two decades, up to 10,000 madrassah schools have sprung up across Pakistan, offering the incentive of a free education and the eventual opportunity of a job – even if that means a wage earned through activism for a hardline group.

The influence of madrassah schools largely went unnoticed until the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US, which prompted a number of western countries to begin pressing Pakistan for a clampdown on their network. But senior Pakistani officials warn that a tough approach could prompt a backlash from Islamic groups.

But in neighbourhoods where a TCF school has been set up, it is becoming less likely that a madrassah will be established, or that students will leave their TCF school for an alternative. “One of our successes is that students who come to TCF know that all their needs are going to be met by the foundation,” says Salma Majid, a TCF school principal.

Mrs Majid, who joined the school a year ago, quit her job at a large school in the heart of Karachi, attracted not only by the success of the TCF experiment but also by the support extended to teachers as well as students. She and her colleagues, for example, are picked up and dropped
off by school vans every day.

Mr Saleem notes that in a country of 145m people, the TCF’s efforts rank as no more than a modest experiment.

“The road to any society’s success must lie in reducing illiteracy,” he says. “We may be just beginning something new.”

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